When Milwaukeeans hear the name Solomon Juneau it likely rings a few bells. He was a founding father of Milwaukee and the city's first mayor. However, Juneau’s name also belongs to a tugboat docked year-round near the Michigan Street bridge downtown.
This week’s Bubbler Talk — our series that answers your questions about Milwaukee and the region — takes a peek into the history of The Solomon Juneau. Peter from Wauwatosa wants to know:
What is the history of the boat, The Solomon Juneau, which appears to be permanently docked near the Michigan St bridge downtown?
The best person to answer Peter's question? Mark Gubin, the boat's owner.
“There’s no practical reason for having [the boat]. It’s just madness; you need madness in your life,” he says.
Mark has owned the tugboat since the early 1980s and gave it its famous name. But before he came across it, the boat had lived many other lives. Originally called The Centurion, Mark says the ship was built in 1903. He says, "it started out in a shipyard that was left over from the parts that were made for the second World War’s victory ships."
It fell into decay after WWII, Mark says, and the boat "was mostly a skeleton, but a very nice hull as far as the shape of it — it was an icebreaker front. One of the welders there said, 'Could I have that?' And nobody knew who it belonged to, so they said, 'Sure.' ”
So, in the late 1940s, it became a fishing boat known as the Kevinbren. And it held that name until mark changed it.
“The Kevinbren had been listed as sunk and it was brought up and rebuilt. Well, at that point, I didn’t want to have a bad name for it because it had been in papers sunk. And if you brought up the Titanic you wouldn’t rename it the Titanic — you’d have nobody at your parties,” he says.
He adds that some articles he's seen about the boat showed that it’s had its share of mishaps. Sometime in the 1950s during the winter, it was lost on the lake for three days. It ran into the side of a fuel oil freighter knocking 3 feet off its bow, and it once went under during a botched fishing expedition.
But Mark was able to give the boat a new life.
“I always sort of liked the shape of the hull and thought, 'That could be something, it just needs a lot of work.' I started working on it little by little and getting parts from all kinds of other boats. This thing was already made from parts of other boats anyhow. It’s not exactly sure who built it because we all did," Mark says.
With the work he and others put into it, he says the boat looks like it originally did in 1903.
It’s 56-feet-long and 18-feet-wide with a steel front, once used for breaking through ice, and its round windows come from WWII victory ships. He also equipped it with luxuries like a fireplace and, down below, a sauna.
Mark says The Solomon Juneau is his “condo downtown” from time to time. The boat has hosted family excursions and was even his son’s “dorm room” while he was in college.
“I had a helluva lot of parties on it. We used to dive off of it and stuff like that. Under the radar dome at the top, I had a diving board, and all my friends [and kids] all played on it," Mark says.
When you cross its path, you can’t help but question where The Solomon Juneau came from. National magazines have done stories about Mark's boat. Locals and visitors from around the world have been intrigued – some have even been quite famous.
“I was down there around Christmas a number of years ago doing something on the boat. It was just a good respite to get away from things. And all these ladies looked about the same age and they were all rather pretty and they started asking about it. And I said, 'Well you all look sort of the same, where are you from?' and they said, 'Oh, we’re the Rockettes!' And there was like five of them and they did this little thing for a while up there. This is pretty neat, you know,” Mark explains.
Who would have guessed that this little tugboat would add to the fabric of Milwaukee history and actually becoming a landmark? Certainly not Mark.
“I never thought it would be that. Never thought of it in the world like that,” he says.
Couples have been married on The Solomon Juneau. It once had a personal security guard for three years – a seagull Mark affectionately named Frank who has his own statue atop the boat’s wheelhouse.
You might even catch Mark on the boat one day, weather permitting, out on the hammock reading a book or relaxing with friends.
So much life. So much character in the Solomon Juneau, a jewel in the Milwaukee River.
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